The Roald Dahl collection highlights the need for sensitivity editors

Texts should be reevaluated for meaning, relevance and their ability to cause offence to reflect the times we live in

A young girl reads Matilda by Roald Dahl at the Hay Festival in 2016. Alamy Stock Photo
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The recent debate over changes to the original texts of Roald Dahl’s books became so intense in the UK that it prompted an interjection from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said in a statement that fiction should be preserved not airbrushed.

Mr Sunak’s comments were made after it was reported that Dahl’s UK publisher said it had edited such classics as Matilda and The BFG to bring their language up to date for modern audiences, a decision that attracted widespread condemnation in literary circles and beyond.

An Associated Press report on the changes said that Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be described as “enormous” in the edited versions rather than “enormously fat” descriptor of the originals. Other edits included a character described as an “old crow” in the new editions, updated from “old hag” in the originals.

Those who object to changes being made to Dahl’s work describe them as vandalism and censorship and argue that when you alter someone’s work it is no longer theirs. Salman Rushdie said the publisher and Dahl’s estate should be “ashamed” for undertaking the process.

Those on the other side of the debate say that leaving the original texts to fester as artefacts from a less inclusive past is equally abusive, although it has been almost impossible to hear those voices amid the cacophony of outrage generated by those who maintain Dahl’s texts are untouchable.

Whether you see sensitivity readers as a latter-day literary vandal or a necessary part of contemporary society lies at the heart of this debate

A compromise of sorts has now been reached with the UK publishers saying they will publish two versions of its Roald Dahl Classic Collection of stories: one in unedited form and the other that updated the parts of his classic stories that dealt with issues such as weight and race, among others.

The decision to publish both versions seems tailored to please no one while attempting to please everyone, although the publisher said its intention was to offer readers “the choice to decide how they experience Roald Dahl’s magical, marvellous stories”.

But clearly the decision is commercial as well, with Dahl’s books continuing to sell in large numbers and his characters regularly featuring in celebrations to mark World Book Day, which was this week.

The whole episode also brought opprobrium to the door of the sensitivity readers who are employed by publishers to look at texts and make suggestions to bring them up to date for modern audiences. Dahl’s texts were reviewed using this form of editorial oversight.

One sensitivity reader interviewed by DW said her role was “looking for things that may not come across in the way the author intended to be”. Tellingly, she also said that people regularly dismiss her job as being part of a “woke mob” intent on ruining the books of our lives.

Whether you see sensitivity readers as a latter-day literary vandal or a necessary part of contemporary society lies at the heart of this debate.

I can see their value and, generally, editorial processes require multiple sets of hands to ensure a piece of writing is fit for publication. This process also depends on the skill and dexterity demonstrated by the editor to move a text forwards in an appropriate way. Conversely, there can’t be many people who don’t benefit from a fresh set of eyes looking at a piece of work and making suggestions and comments.

Why then is it so bad for someone to edit if the work itself is deemed important enough to still be consumed and in circulation? Surely an important facet of society is to question, analyse and constantly improve.

More than that, language lives and changes all the time. What was standard usage yesterday may turn out to be the most old-fashioned and regressive form of communication tomorrow.

We are all aware of films or TV shows that we once watched in large numbers but are completely inappropriate for modern audiences because they use outdated conventions or language.

It is also common for art exhibitions to run with text boards to provide nuance and context to the visitor about the works they are seeing and what may have motivated a particular treatment or movement.

No one can honestly say that the world we live in or the way people think and act is the same as it was in the mid-1960s when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was written. Culture moves constantly and we should be reevaluating texts for meaning, relevance and, yes, their ability to cause offence.

There is a third way through this issue, which was suggested by author Philip Pullman. He told the BBC that “if Dahl offends us, let him go out of print”.

Given the choice, I would pick nuance over non-circulation of classic texts or wilful non-intervention.

Mr Sunak’s statement on the matter said that “we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words”, but we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge outmoded language either. There should always be room for sympathetic preservation.

Published: March 02, 2023, 2:00 PM